New Report Puts Blame on Local Officials In Beslan Siege

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 29, 2005

MOSCOW, Dec. 28 -- In the month before the Beslan school siege in which 331 hostages were killed last year, Russian security services received intelligence that terrorists might try to seize a school in the region on the first day of classes, but instructions for tightened security were ignored, according to preliminary findings of a parliamentary investigation released Wednesday.

Although the Russian Interior Ministry sent warning telegrams to regional authorities, the investigation found, only a single unarmed policewoman was stationed outside Beslan's School No. 1 when at least 32 terrorists stormed it on Sept. 1, 2004. She was taken hostage, too.

Citing numerous failings by local and regional officials before the attack, the report found "negligence and carelessness in facing a real terrorist threat."

The assault by local police, armed civilians and federal troops that ultimately ended the siege was marked by "a whole number of blunders and shortcomings," the commission's chairman, Alexander Torshin, said in presenting the report to parliament Wednesday.

Torshin, who is deputy speaker of the upper house of parliament, also lambasted officials at the scene for initially lying about the number of hostages taken, which infuriated both the terrorists inside the school and hostages' relatives outside.

Overall, the report faulted local officials, leading to some criticism that it whitewashed mistakes by high-level members of the government of President Vladimir Putin. During the crisis, command centers at the scene were in constant contact with Moscow.

The report "is an attempt to put the blame on regional and local law enforcers and not on the leaders of federal ministries, who in my view bear responsibility for what happened," Vladimir Ryzhkov, an independent member of parliament, told the Associated Press. "They didn't take preventive measures. They didn't check how their orders were being carried out."

The attacks "can only be compared with Nazi atrocities," Torshin said. "The hostages who were held in the besieged school were deprived of food, medicines and water. They had to drink their own urine. They were forced to mine the building, and when they tried to escape, they got bullets in their backs."

The three-day siege ended in a storm of fire and bullets. Of the 331 hostages killed, 186 were children. In addition, 31 out of 32 fighters died; the survivor is on trial.

There have been three separate official inquiries, with sometimes conflicting findings. One conducted by the regional parliament found numerous failings by law enforcement authorities. An initial report by federal prosecutors, released Tuesday, said security services were not to blame for the outcome.

That report angered relatives of the victims, but they generally welcomed the tone and thrust of Wednesday's report, which was based on interviews with more than 1,000 people.

"The very fact that this commission exists is a precedent for Russia, and we think that Torshin understands that he can't use the usual doublespeak," said Anyeta Gadieva, a spokeswoman for the Beslan Mothers' Committee. She noted that Putin had initially resisted the establishment of an investigative commission.

Speaking to both houses of parliament, Torshin said that on Aug. 2 last year, the Russian Interior Ministry was warned about a possible terrorist attack. Three days later, that information was refined to suggest a major attack in the North Caucasus, which led the Interior Ministry to order tighter security across the region. The ministry subsequently received information that terrorists were planning an attack on a school, probably in Ingushetia, a Russian republic that borders North Ossetia, where Beslan is located.

On Aug. 21 and again on Aug. 31, the Russian interior minister sent messages to the region, including North Ossetia, telling the security services to tighten security at all educational establishments on the first day of school, which in Russia is known as the Day of Knowledge. Across the country, it draws parents and relatives of first-graders to schools.

"These instructions could have thwarted or prevented the terrorist act, but they were not fulfilled," Torshin said, noting that the terrorists had camped "undisguised" in Ingushetia, where officials also ignored orders to step up patrols. He said the group set up a camp just 70 yards from a road and 500 yards from a village and hid out there between Aug. 15 and Aug. 31.

The senator also revealed that the group that seized the school in Beslan had a backup plan to take a school in Ingushetia if its plans in Beslan were blocked. He said that 11 radicals were on standby in the village of Nesterovskaya and that four of them were subsequently arrested.

Torshin said Beslan, a town of about 30,000, might have been selected as a target because one of the terrorists had "studied there for a full 10 years."

A local head of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the domestic successor to the KGB, made the decision to understate the number of hostages in statements to the press, Torshin said. Officials initially said there were 354 hostages, although in fact about 1,100 people were being held in the school's gymnasium. Torshin also blamed the FSB official, Valery Andreyev, who has been taken off active duty, for poor coordination among the various security services and military units at the scene.

The Chechen guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev has asserted responsibility for the attack, and Torshin confirmed the assertion. He also placed blame on Aslan Maskhadov, another Chechen guerrilla leader, who was killed by Russian security services this year. Maskhadov had denounced the hostage-taking.

Torshin said foreigners, including an Arab he named as Abu-Dzeyt, had played an active part in the attack. But he added, "Let's not blame everything on international terrorists. Let's start with ourselves, enforce order in our own home."

Torshin dismissed a number of claims made after the siege, including a statement that Russian tanks fired on the school while hostages were still inside. He said flamethrowers used by FSB units at the scene did not cause the fire that swept the school at the end of the siege. And he ruled out the possibility that a Russian sniper had shot a terrorist and set off the first explosion when the terrorist's foot fell off a pedal, triggering the bomb.

Torshin said the commission had not yet established exactly what set off the explosion, which led security forces and residents to storm the building in what proved to be a chaotic and bloody ending to the siege.

He said the security services had failed to create an effective cordon around the school, which allowed residents, some of them firing weapons, to break through police lines to try to save their children. While the anguish of parents was understandable, he said, it hampered an effective police operation.

"The list of flaws and weak points in the operation can go on," Torshin said. "The counterterrorist operation was plagued by shortcomings. . . . Many law enforcement officers did not know how to act in an emergency situation."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company